‘Dunkirk’ Review: Nolan Delivers A Truly Powerful & Intense War Film

Read our review of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, starring Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles and Cillian Murphy.

Christopher Nolan Dunkirk

Set during the second World War, British and French forces in Dunkirk, France are completely surrounded by the enemy. In desperate need of evacuation, the Allied soldiers band together with civilians to get their 338,000 men clear of the Germans’ relentless barrage.

Christopher Nolan is considered by many to be one of the great directors of the modern era. Each film he releases is met with a ton of anticipation and he almost always delivers. So, is Dunkirk Christopher Nolan’s next masterpiece or did he miss the mark this time? Read on to find out! This review is spoiler-free.

One of the things that I found the most interesting about Dunkirk was its structure. There are three major storylines going on in this true story of one of the most pivotal, but often overlooked (at least, cinematically), historical events of World War II. First of all, there are the soldiers on land, trying to escape from the city of Dunkirk, which is surrounded by German forces. The second thread follows the civilians that come to the rescue of the soldiers and helped them evacuate. The third storyline is all about the Air Force pilots fighting it out in the air. As the film intercuts between these stories, I found that I was pretty much equally invested in all three. The stuff with the pilots might have been the most exciting, with the solider’s escape being the most intense and the civilian arc being the most emotionally engaging, but all three plots kept me captivated throughout. From the jump, Dunkirk sets a tone, one that doesn’t let up until the film’s climax.

I enjoyed the nonlinear way in which the story was presented quite a bit, however, the usage of this storytelling device also lead to one of the issues I had with the film. It all comes down to time really, as the three storylines take place within three different periods of time, with the land parts occuring over the course of a week, the sea stuff encompassing a day’s time, and the events of the air battle all happening within an hour. The way the film weaves in and out of the three stories worked really well for me until the timing of the three stories started growing closer together. I didn’t have too much difficulty following the story until this point of the film and then it started to get a bit muddled for me. I can see your typical audience member getting lost pretty easily along the way, especially during the film’s climax when we’re seeing events that take place within moments of one another out of sequence, which became really jarring at times. In these moments, I felt like Nolan was a bit too commited to this structure, almost to a fault. I found myself getting too consumed with doing the mental math of trying to figure out when each sequence was supposed to take place in relation to the others and it just ended up taking me out of the story, something that especially isn’t good when it’s during the climax of your film.

Dunkirk features a terrific cast across the board (aside from the one terrible extra that everyone noticed in the first teaser for the film). Of course, there are some outstanding performances from all the actors that you would expect, such as Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy (Nolan sure does love to cover this guy’s face with a mask, though), but it was the actors which I was unfamiliar with that impressed me the most — the young soldiers, played by Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles. It was a brilliant move to cast actors that the majority of the audience won’t recognize from other films in order to establish the soldiers’ youth and inexperience. Like Chris Nolan himself, I don’t know much about One Direction, but I thought that Harry Styles was pretty great in this, his first true acting role. This film is also Whitehead’s second acting role, but I wouldn’t have guessed it based on the performance he gives here, and as one of the film’s principal leads, no less. Barnard is the more accomplished actor of the three, so I found it interesting that he barely speaks in the whole film, for reasons that become apparent as the story unfolds. He still managed to give a solid performance, though.

The one problematic area of the film’s cast of characters is that there are practically no women in the film. The few women that do appear are pretty much extras or day-players with a single line or two at best. There were even a couple of places near the end of the film in which even a minor male character could have easily been swapped out for a female, if only for representation’s sake, but this never seemed to be something the filmmakers considered. All of the same things could be said for persons of color as well. I, of course, realize that most of this is due to the circumstances of the story, which was based on true events, but it was just a really strange realization to have in a movie theater in 2017.

Just about every aspect of this film was brilliant, but for me, Hans Zimmer’s score was the real highlight of the film. It reminded me of his score for Interstellar, a film in which the central theme was time and Zimmer employed a beat-per-second time signature in a way that keeps the moviegoer ever conscious of the precious seconds slipping through the characters’ hands. Zimmer did a similar thing here with Dunkirk, doing a tremendous job of building the tensing throughout and ratcheting up the suspense during the more harrowing scenes (and boy, there are quite a few) by utilizing a clock-ticking effect in conjunction with the music. For me, I think when a score works best, most people don’t really notice it, because it should be blending in so well with the imagery that the average moviegoer doesn’t really notice. Well, I took notice of this score. Zimmer is one of the greats and I think this might be one of my favorite non-superhero works of his, though — it’s the way it works within the film itself that makes it so great.

Christopher Nolan really delivered with this film, both as a director and as the sole writer. The visuals are fantastic, which is also a credit to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who returns to work with Nolan after first teaming up with him on Interstellar. His penchant for relying more on real-world practical effects rather than CGI also made the whole thing feel infinitely more real. Nolan’s last several films touted runtimes of 2.5+ hours, but I actually found it refreshing that this one came in a little under two hours, making it his shortest film since his directorial debut, Following. Typically, when a film is that long, it always seems like the director is just overindulging themselves. There are some exceptions, but I usually don’t feel like a movie really needs to be that long to tell the story the filmmaker is setting out to tell. However, Nolan didn’t need the extra time here to tell a truly captivating and powerful story. I was fully engaged from beginning to end and that might not have been the case if it were pushing three hours. The pacing of the film was excellent, and aside from the confusing timeline stuff I mentioned before, I thought it was really well-edited.

Overall, Dunkirk was just a spectacular film. I know a lot of film fans practically worship the guy, but I’m not really a die-hard Christopher Nolan fan. I almost always enjoy his films (though, I was let down quite a bit by The Dark Knight Rises, which is easily my least favorite of his films), but for some reason, this one wasn’t really on my most-anticipated list. It really should have been, though. I was thoroughly pleased to discover that Dunkirk is my favorite film Nolan has made in years. If you’re a Nolan fan or just a fan of historical events on the big screen, you’re in for a truly engaging, edge-of-your-seat cinema-going experience.

Score: 9/10